Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sapa and Ha Long: Part 2 - The Bay

            One day it started raining, and it didn't quit for four months.  We've been through every kind of rain there is: little bit of stinging rain, and big old fat rain, rain that flew in sideways, and sometimes rain even seemed to come from strait up underneath.  Shoot, it even rained at night.  - Forrest Gump

Floating village in Ha Long Bay
          Today, it started to rain.  And it didn’t stop raining until we left Ha Long bay. It even rained sideways, and sometimes it would rain strait up! Ok, I made that last part up, because Forest Gump was a good movie, and that line is referring to Vietnam, where I currently am. Today we supposedly were to leave Sapa for the warmer, sunnier climes of Ha Long. Unfortunately, that would not be the case -  but I wouldn't find out until later.

Enjoying the sights of Ha Long
            It was raining when we woke up, so there was not a whole lot we could do, so my roommate, Mack, and I went to go have breakfast at a local restaurant that appeared to have American looking food, of course here in Vietnam nothing seems to actually be what it appears, and it wasn’t as good as it we expected, but it was still familiar. A bus arrived at our hotel at about 1:30 to take us down to Lao Cai, where the train station is located. After navigating the twisting and turning roads of the paddy-covered mountains, we arrived in Lao Cai. We had around 4 hours before our train was to depart, so we drove over to the Vietnam-Chinese boarder, just to check it out. China was across the river, and the only way to get across was a bridge, with entrance stations at both sides. That or you swim, but only if you're good at dodging bullets.... After checking out the crossing, and snapping a few pictures and video with my trusty camera, we drove to a hotel near the station, which acted as a staging area in preparation for our departure later that evening. We got a few rooms there, where we watched TV for a few hours, then went down for dinner, and eventually walked over to the station, and left on the Ha Noi express (not its real name) at 8 o’clock. We were all pretty tired, even though we didn’t actually do a whole lot today, sitting in a bus can be draining. So I went to bed much earlier than last time. We talked for a while and played music, much like last time, and at around 10 or so, headed back to the cabin and drifted off to sleep.

A buddha statue in the monastery
            The scheduled arrival time into Ha Noi was 4:30 am. Fortunately today the blaring Vietnamese music was not playing this morning, which was a major plus. I woke at around 4:15, just long enough to come out of my daze before we arrived at the creepy WW2 station. After arriving, we left the train behind and got on a bus that SYA hired to take us to Ha Long bay. It was a 4-hour bus ride, but we made a few stops along the way. I slept for the first few hours of the trip, but I woke up when we stopped for breakfast at a tourist trap, a combo of a ceramic factory, restaurant and convenience store. The service was really bad, and they completely forgot about our table and it took 20 minutes to get my food, which was also the wrong thing.

Our meditation teacher in the monastery
          After finishing up at the restaurant/store, we continued toward Ha Long, stopping at a Buddhist monastery. Here we met with a senior monk, who was in his early 80s. He had lived a very interesting life. He was a soldier in the 50’s and fought against the French, and after that he became a monk, and has been ever since. He also has grandchildren who live in the US. He talked to us for a while about Buddhism, and then taught us how to meditate. It was very interesting, but the teachings were really hard, because you have to do some funky things with your feet, like twist them around and put them above your knees when you sit, which was very uncomfortable if you're not flexible (like me). After our meditation lesson, we got to have lunch with the monks. That was really cool. They eat in complete silence, and they pray before and after they eat. It was a little hard at first not being able to talk, but eventually I settled into it and it was actually very relaxing. After lunch, we thanked them for letting us visit them, then left the hills behind and continued on our way to Ha Long. We made one pit stop at a hospital for one of the girls on our trip, because she was sick and our director wanted to get some tests done to figure out what is was, she turned out to be fine though. Then around 4:30 or so, we arrived at our hotel in Ha Long, and after a few hours of rest, we headed out to dinner a few blocks away, but it was still raining, so we took le autobus. To say that today was a long day would be an understatement, because today was a very long day, starting at around 4 in the morning, and not finishing until 10:30pm. But we got to see some very cool things, like being able to learn from a monk and eat with them, and also getting our first glimpse of Ha Long bay.
Ha Long Bay, into the fog
The Cave, with its natural lighting

            The next morning, we had to be at the boat at 8. Thay Vuong recommended that we get up at about 6, so we could have breakfast and be ready to go by 7:30. That turned out to be too early as my roommate, Woo, and I headed down to the breakfast buffet at around 6:15, and of course there was no one there from our group, there were plenty of other people though. Eventually the others began trickling in, and by 7:30, we were ready to head out for our day on the Bay. The tourist boat harbor was absolutely insane, there were hundreds of boats all moored off in the harbor, and there were a few docks where the boats could come in and pick up passengers - and there was not a lot of space to do that. We were hit twice on the way out, because there were so many other boats, and everyone is turning at the same time, and apparently the captains don’t seem to care, so all the boats, large vessels, slam into each other constantly. The Bay is notoriously dangerous for boating, and every few years or so one of these boats will go down with everyone on board, because they are made of wood, and also because the crews aren’t particularly competent and at night the boats just slam into each other and sink. Also, as I just mentioned, they are made of wood, and as I found out while on the cruise, they are constantly taking on water, and in each vessel there is a motor down below that is powering a pump that bails out the water collecting in the bilge. If the pump were to shut off at any point, you better know how to swim, or learn quickly because you only have a few minutes. But anyway, lets forget about all that unimportant safety stuff. Ha Long bay was absolutely amazing, the way that the limestone just jetted out of the water was stunning, and there were more islands then I could possibly count, all hidden away in a massive archipelago that stretches as far as the eyes can see. After about 45 minutes of cruising, we arrived at our first stop, a giant cave inside one of the islands. It was definitely a tourist destination, and there were about 15 of the tourist boats docked in the little bay, and after slamming into a few boats getting to our dock position, we began the 100 foot climb or so to the entrance. If this place had been any cheesier, I could have slapped a couple tortillas on it and ate it. During the assent up the staircase, there were speaker playing dramatic music, and every 50 feet or so there were trashcans, but not just any trashcans, little penguin cans. Really? Penguins? But, when we got inside, the cave was absolutely amazing, it was a lot like the Carlsbad caverns in Southern New Mexico, except keeping to their tourist trap nature, they hade multicolored lights all over the place, which king of detracted from the experience, but it was still a neat cave. It was also very crowded, so it was kind of a trade off; a cool cave visit, but there were a lot of people and bright lights. After we finished the cave walk, we went back down, fetched our boat, and continued on to the next destination, a boat village. When we arrived at the boat village, we got to do a pretty cool thing, our boat pulled up to a floating fish farm. It was basically a giant raft with holes and down in the holes were fish, crab and other aquatic animals. They were in open water, but nets held them in so they couldn’t leave their little pen. While we looked around, the crew shopped for our lunch. Our science/economics teacher, Thay Chuck, surprised us all by showing us one of the weirdest sea critters I ever done saw. It was called a Horseshoe crab, and it’s considered to be a living fossil. It dates back millions and millions of years, and is pretty much unchanged since then. After we selected our lunch, we boarded our ship, and began a slow cruise back towards Ha Long. The Lunch was amazing, everything was so fresh, and delicious too! We had a few different courses, consisting of fresh shrimp, fish, crab, French fries, and vegetables too. After our lunch was over, we were almost back into port. We were supposed to go to a beach today, for swimming and hiking, but it was raining, so the boat didn’t take us there, instead, we would try to head out again on Saturday. After our bus picked us up, we didn’t go back to the hotel, but instead went to a temple about an hour north up the coast, which honored a Vietnamese general, who had beaten the Mongols back in the 900’s. It was kind of a long drive for such a short time at the temple, but it was pretty neat to see. It rained the rest of the afternoon and evening, so chances of a boat ride on Saturday were looking dim. We didn’t have a lot of time to wait around, since we had to return to Ha Noi that afternoon. Thay Vuong said we would just play it by ear, and see if conditions improved.

A boat glides along the water
            We woke up a bit later today, around 6:45. We had to have all our stuff down in the lobby when we came down for breakfast, so we spent a few minutes packing up the rest of our stuff in the room before heading down. Breakfast was the same setup as the day before, western style with some Asian flair. I had toast, sausage, some eggs, and also some egg noodles, because I am in Viet Nam after all. At about 8 am, we gathered in the lobby and brought our stuff to the bus, where it was loaded on, and then after our rooms were inspected by the hotel, we were cleared for takeoff. It turned out conditions on the bay were better today, so we would be able to take a short trip out to an island with a beach. When we arrived there, after about 45 minutes of cruising, we saw the beach, it was artificial, since these were limestone islands that don’t really have beaches. But it was real sand. There were no waves anywhere on the bay because it is so dense with islands; it was really like a giant salt-water lake. Leading up from the beach was a trail, and a few of us intrepid explorers decided to see where it went, leading the charge was Thay Chuck, and along for the hike was me, Sarah, and Woo. After a steep 10-15 minute climb, and I’m talking about intense, fast-paced run-climbing, we arrived at the summit of the island, and got an incredible view, we had a 360-degree view of the bay, it was amazing (do I use that word too much?). After a short ecology lesson, we scrambled down the mountain, and arrived back at the beach, just in time for a game of Frisbee.  

         I really enjoyed my time in Ha Long bay, but it was time to return home, back to the fast paced city life of Ha Noi, where the buildings are tall and the bus drivers are crazy. It seemed like that trip lasted way longer than just a week. It could have been a month. I think it was because we did so much in such a small amount of time, that it made it seem longer. We would wake up by 6:30 almost every morning, and the days were jammed packed with stuff to do, and I wouldn’t fall asleep until 11. But I am glad to be back in Ha Noi, because even though it was only a week, I was really starting to miss my host family and my home here. So, with 7 days on the road, we got to see a lot of amazing places, from the mountains right down to the sea.

Boats docked outside the cave

What the @!#$ is that thing?

Oh, it's a horseshoe crab, I should have known

My artsy lunch pictures

Every thing we ate on the boat was alive 30 minutes before consumption

Fish entrée, the meal made up for the traumatic
crashes we experienced in port 

Whole crab, yummy

Temple to Vietnamese general who defeated
the mongols during their conquest in Vietnam

Large scale coal mining is a huge industry
in Northern Vietnam

Stadium near Ha Long, notice the giant screen

Famous rock formation in Ha Long bay

Look out tower on top of the island

A sad sight, giant swarms of garbage left by fishermen
and those floating villages 

Even though this wasn't taken during the trip, It
deserves an honorable mention. This was a blood soup
that I had when I went out to lunch with my host dad
after I got back. (side note: I didn't order it)

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